When Oprah Winfrey, Charter Schools and Special Ed Collide

While students all around him were celebrating a momentous occasion in the history of their school, Lawrence Melrose sat alone in a school office next door. The talk show host Oprah Winfrey had just delivered a $1 million dollar check to the New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy. The rest of the kids watched the presentation ceremony on TV in a nearby church hall, but school administrators felt that Merlose’s emotional problems that often led to fighting and cursing might mar the celebratory occasion, Business Week reports.

“They left me,” Joseph recalled the boy telling him on the day of the Winfrey celebration. “They left me out.”

Melrose attends the New Orleans Charter but his learning and emotional disability and difficulty in communicating require counseling and aggressive speech therapy. Unfortunately, his school doesn’t provide any of those. Nor do many other charter schools, that deal with the problem by either not getting the students the help they need or by excluding special education students entirely, although that violates the federal law.

Along with the academy supported by Oprah’s Angel Network — which the entertainer used to raise money from the public –New Orleans charter schools accused of discrimination include those that are favored charities of Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates, Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Walton family and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

The reason behind the discrepancy is entirely financial. According to Business Week, it costs a school nearly twice as much to educate a disabled child than a child who doesn’t require such intervention.

The federal law requires that charters, just like regular public schools, must accept special-needs children and come up with an individual plan to manage the student’s disability while helping them to learn. Even though the rate of non-compliance is high, and no wonder:

“There’s no incentive to take these kids,” Hehir, now a Harvard University professor, said in an interview. “If you can avoid educating them, there are other things you can do with the money. You can pay people more or reduce class size.”

Some charter schools, however, prefer to handle the issue head-on. In Denver last year, only two of the 7000 charter school students were learning-disabled. So this year, a new charter called Omar D. Blair Charter School opened as “first charter-based multi-intensive center program for students with significant disabilities.”

According to the Denver Post, Omar D. Blair has already been recruiting a student body with moderate-to-severe learning difficulties, so for them, the new program is a logical first step. However, school principal Debbi Blair-Minter believes that other charters will soon be following her lead. The cost of the new program is about $100,000 per year, covered by the Denver Public Schools District.